As a formal document, the Wye River Memorandum breaks no new ground.Its stated purpose is merely to reaffirm and ‘facilitate implementation’ of ‘prior agreements’.Nonetheless, the Memorandum illuminates the process set in motion at Oslo and dispels lingering illusions.In these remarks, I will first sketch the crucial historical background, then analyze the document and, finally, consider the prospects for a just settlement.

The aim of the mainstream Zionist movement, from its inception a century ago, has been to create a Jewish state in Palestine.Ideally, this meant a state with a homogeneously Jewish population; for practical purposes, a state with an overwhelming Jewish population, tolerating a small Arab minority of perhaps 20 per cent.footnote1

The main obstacle to the realization of this goal was the indigenous Arab population.In his recently published quasi-official history of Israel, British historian Martin Gilbert argues that ‘there was a strong desire among the Labor Zionists to live together with the Arabs, and not, as many of the extremists hoped, to make them subordinate to Jewish nationalist needs, or even to drive them out of Palestine altogether’.Scholarship does not sustain this claim.Labor Zionism was committed to the ‘building of a Jewish society by Jews alone, from foundation stone to rafter’ in ‘all of Palestine’ (Anita Shapira).Accordingly, as Zeev Sternhell shows in an important study, ‘nobody fought against the Arab worker more vigorously than [Labor Zionists]; nobody preached national, economic and social segregation with more determination than the Labor movement’.footnote2

Faced with indigenous resistance, European conquest movements in the post-Columbus era typically resorted to the most brute force: extermination.Yet, by the early twentieth century this extreme option was no longer available.The Zionist movement thus set its sights on ‘population transfer’—the euphemism for expulsion—of the indigenous population.Indeed, until after World War ii, international opinion acquiesced in expulsion as a means of resolving ethnic conflicts.footnote3 Historian Benny Morris observes that, for the Zionist leadership, ‘transferring the Arabs out’ was seen as the ‘chief means’ of ‘assuring the stability and “Jewishness” of the proposed Jewish state’.During the 1948 war, the Arab population was effectively expelled from the conquered areas of Palestine, completing the first phase of Zionist conquest.footnote4

In the course of the June 1967 war, Israel conquered the long-coveted West Bank and Gaza—as well as the Sinai and Golan Heights.In this second phase of conquest, the Zionist leadership confronted the same dilemma as earlier in the century: it wanted the land but not the people.The options available for resolving this dilemma, however, had narrowed considerably.Not only extermination, but expulsion too, was no longer politically tenable.The Zionist movement accordingly opted for encirclement: appropriating as much of the resources—especially water—and land as was feasible while confining the Arab population to native reservations.This was the essence of the Allon Plan, first formulated in July 1967 and the operative framework of the Oslo process, allowing Israel to retain roughly half the West Bank.

Israel’s partial withdrawal option fell foul, however, of the international consensus that formed after the June 1967 war for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.Embodied in un Resolution 242, this consensus called for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land in exchange for an Arab commitment to full peace with Israel.It bears recalling that the root of Israel’s enduring quarrel with the international community has been the demand, not for a Palestinian state, but for full, as against partial, withdrawal.Indeed, 242 made no mention at all of a Palestinian state, referring merely to a ‘just settle ment of the refugee problem’.The Allon Plan is not incompatible with a Palestinian state: what to call the arid patches of land ceded to the Arab natives is a matter of semantics.For Israel, the crux has always been its claim to ‘territorial revision’ (Abba Eban).footnote5

After the June war, Israel called for partial withdrawal on all the Arab fronts.Egypt offered in February 1971 to sign a bilateral peace treaty if Israel fully withdrew from the Sinai.Israel refused.In the name of ‘security’, it demanded retention of part of Sinai, Moshe Dayan famously declaring that ‘we prefer Sharm-el-Shaykh without peace to peace without Sharm-el-Shaykh’.Once Egypt proved itself a military force to be reckoned with in the October 1973 war, Israel came around, agreeing at Camp David in 1978 to the peace terms it rejected in 1971. A core Zionist tenet, Zeev Sternhell observes, is ‘never giving up a position or a territory unless one is compelled by superior force’. Israel did continue to bargain hard at Camp David, demanding—unsuccessfully—to retain control of the oil refineries, settlements and airfields it had built in Sinai. Yet Sharm-el-Shaykh figured not at all in these intense, often bitter, negotiations. Israel abandoned Sharm-el-Shaykh—its crucial ‘security’ asset—without even a whimper. It is an instructive lesson in the substance, or lack thereof, of Israel’s ‘security’ concerns. footnote6